Norman Spinrad managed to bug just about everybody with Bug
Jack Barron
(1969). The book got attacked in Parliament. The
Daily Express
branded it as filth.  Book and magazine retailer
Menzies removed it from its racks, and even phoned up its competitor
WH Smith and convinced them to do the same.  Even before it had
been released, the publisher commissioning the novel refused to
issue it. The work was then accepted by Michael Moorcock for
publication in his magazine
New Worlds, but the feminist printers
who typeset for the periodical also mounted
a protest against Spinrad’s text.

And how does the novel hold up almost a half-
century later?  Has it mellowed with age?

No, not a bit.  

You still couldn't assign this book in a classroom
without stirring up a wave of protest and discontent.  
Many would object to the racial epithets, which come
at the reader strong and hard in the first paragraph,
and keep on coming for the duration of the novel.  
Others would seek out and find, without much difficulty,
examples of sexism, obscenity, blasphemy, vulgarity,
glorification of drug use, ridicule of authority figures,
and the cynical advocacy of a range of unpopular
political ideologies. In short, whether you are on the
Right or Left, progressive or reactionary, Red State
or Blue State, believer or atheist or agnostic…
whatever floats your boat, Spinrad just gave you a
leak and you’re taking water fast.

In his own prickly and cussed way, Spinrad has ensured that his most
famous book will languish in obscurity, neglected by most and attacked
by a few. In a way, that's sad. Spinrad brilliantly anticipated many aspects
of 21st century culture, and few science fiction works from the 1960s still
contain so many relevant and thought-provoking insights on the dangerous
intersection of mass media, technology and politics in the current day. If
you are willing to have your sensibilities tweaked, and sometimes stomped
on—and, I assure you, that will happen repeatedly in this book—you will
get some compensation from the smart, provocative things Spinrad has
to say about talk radio, social networking, cable TV and the worldwide web.

Well, let me be honest, he doesn't actually mention any of those platforms
in
Bug Jack Barron. Spinrad got many of the details wrong, but he
understood the Big Picture, conceiving how the medium massages
the message, or sometimes just beats it into submission. He saw
how reality would turn virtual, how media would become interactive,
how politics would get engulfed by images on screens and showbiz
priorities. Above all, he anticipated the angry, in-your-face tone of modern
day ideological rhetoric.  Even back in the days of Walter Cronkite,
Spinrad saw the more hardball, partisan style of ratings-driven commentary
that now follows us wherever we go—surfing the web, listen to the radio
in our car, watching the big screen TV in our living room of the smaller
one on our handheld device.

Jack Barron, our hero of sorts, is the star of a hit TV interactive talk show
that attracts 100 million viewers every Wednesday night.  He is Bill
O’Reilly, Rachel Maddow, Jon Stewart and Rush Limbaugh all rolled into
one, a brash talking head who combines pushing-the-envelope commentary
with populist rhetoric and showbiz theatrics. Viewers are invited to "bug
Jack Barron" with whatever is bugging them. They are connected in real
time with the host and home audience via a video-phone, and share their
gripes and rants. Then Jack Barron takes their grievances and runs with
them—calling up powerful people and putting them on the vid-screen,
forcing them to answer tough questions about the issue
du jour.   

At the start of the novel, the hot issue is cold, very cold. A large nonprofit
is charging wealthy people a half million dollars to be frozen when they 'die',
get warehoused in cold storage, and resurrected at some future date,
when an immortality cure is made available. The head of the nonprofit,
wealthy and corrupt Benedict Howards, is using his political clout to get
his freezer operation turned into a government-approved monopoly.  A
rival movement wants freezing turned into an entitlement, offered free to
all.

Jack Barron is thrust into the center of this ideological warfare.  Howards
wants to bribe him, while various political operatives want to enlist the talk
show host into opposing the wealthy freezer magnate's scheme.  But
Barron must also worry about a host of other interests and risks. The FCC
might shut down his TV show.  His hard-hitting investigation into the
freezer controversy also leaves him open to libel suits. Old friends want
new favors and, adding to the complication, the love of his life Sara
Westerfeld has shown up after years of separation…and she is secretly
in cahoots with Benedict Howards.  

This story is compelling and, despite a few implausible plot twists, gets
more interesting as the novel develops.  But Spinrad is often his own
worst enemy, loading down his tale with bloated and repetitive stream-
of-consciousness interludes.  Whenever these arrive, they are jarring, and
soon they become predictable and tiresome. Perhaps if Spinrad
possessed the knack for wordplay of a Joyce, or the prose style of a
Woolf, or the cleverness of a Nabokov, he could have pulled this off.
But he flounders instead, tossing off the same phrases and references
over and over again. Jack Barron, celebrity TV star, ought to be an
exciting protagonist for a stream-of-consciousness novel, but by the time
Spinrad is done with him, Leopold Bloom looks like Mr. Excitement by
comparison.  Even more to the point, this technique is out-of-keeping
with the rest of the novel, which is distinguished by crisp dialogue and
forceful, no-nonsense characters engaged in
mano a mano political
intrigue. It's almost as if Spinrad hadn't decided whether he wanted to
write a dreamy and poetic experimental novel, or a hard-boiled futuristic
thriller, and compromised by mixing up both styles. The result is a
strange hybrid, a kind of warm and fuzzy cyberpunk, cooing and
strident by turns.  

So, yes, you have many reasons to keep away from this novel. It will
probably offend you repeatedly, and if you do persist in reading it, it
will make unreasonable demands, frustrating even the most patient
reader. Despite these shortcomings, you still might want to make
the plunge. A book so willing to upset you is also likely to provoke you
into new ways of thinking.  Even more to the point: there are plenty of
Jack Barrons out there today, in fact more now than ever before.  
Perhaps exposure to this kind of virulence in the form of a novel—
bloated, disturbing, cantankerous by turns—will help you build up an
immunity when you encounter it on a screen, small or large. And you
will, I assure you, you will.


Ted Gioia writes about music, literature and pop culture. His next book, a history of love
songs, is forthcoming from Oxford University Press.


Publication Date: August 7, 2014
conceptual fiction
Bug Jack Barron

by Norman Spinrad
Check out our sister sites:

The New Canon
Great literary works published
since 1985

Great Books Guide
Reviews of current books

Postmodern Mystery
Experimental  works of mystery
& suspense

Fractious Fiction
Radical and unconventional
works of fiction
Reviewed by Ted Gioia
Follow Ted Gioia on Twitter at
www.twitter.com/tedgioia

Conceptual Fiction:
A Reading List
(with links to essays on each work)

Home Page

Abbott, Edwin A.
Flatland

Adams, Douglas
The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy

Aldiss, Brian
Barefoot in the Head

Aldiss, Brian
Hothouse

Aldiss, Brian
Report on Probability A

Allende, Isabel
The House of the Spirits

Amado, Jorge
Dona Flor and Her Two Husbands

Amis, Martin
Time's Arrow

Apuleius
The Golden Ass

Asimov, Isaac
The Foundation Trilogy

Asimov, Isaac
I, Robot

Atwood, Margaret
The Handmaid's Tale

Banks, Iain M.
The State of the Art

Ballard, J.G.
The Atrocity Exhibition

Ballard, J.G.
Crash

Ballard, J.G.
The Crystal World

Ballard, J.G.
The Drowned World

Barth, John
Giles Goat-Boy

Bester, Alfred
The Demolished Man

Blish, James
A Case of Conscience

Borges, Jorge Luis
Ficciones

Bradbury, Ray
Dandelion Wine

Bradbury, Ray
Fahrenheit 451

Bradbury, Ray
The Illustrated Man

Bradbury, Ray
The Martian Chronicles

Bradbury, Ray
Something Wicked This Way Comes

Brockmeier, Kevin
The View from the Seventh Layer

Bulgakov, Mikhail
The Master and Margarita

Bunch, David R.
Moderan

Burgess, Anthony
A Clockwork Orange

Card, Orson Scott
Ender's Game

Carpentier, Alejo
The Kingdom of This World

Carroll, Lewis
Alice's Adventures in Wonderland

Chabon, Michael
The Yiddish Policemen's Union

Chiang, Ted
Stories of Your Life and Others

Clarke, Arthur C.
Childhood's End

Clarke, Arthur C.
A Fall of Moondust

Clarke, Arthur C.
2001: A Space Odyssey

Clarke, Susanna
Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell

Crowley, John
Little, Big

Danielewski, Mark Z.
The Fifty Year Sword

Danielewski, Mark Z.
House of Leaves

Davies, Robertson
Fifth Business

Delany, Samuel R.
Babel-17

Delany, Samuel R.
Dhalgren

Delany, Samuel R.
The Einstein Intersection

Delany, Samuel R.
Nova

Dick, Philip K.
Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?

Dick, Philip K.
Flow My Tears, the Policeman Said

Dick, Philip K.
The Man in the High Castle

Dick, Philip K.
Ubik

Dick, Philip K.
VALIS

Disch, Thomas M.
Camp Concentration

Disch, Thomas M.
The Genocides

Doctorow, Cory
Down and Out in the Magic Kingdom

Donoso, José
The Obscene Bird of Night

Ellison, Harlan (editor)
Dangerous Visions

Ellison, Harlan
I Have No Mouth & I Must Scream

Esquivel, Laura
Like Water for Chocolate

Farmer, Philip José
To Your Scattered Bodies Go

Fuentes, Carlos
Aura

Gaiman, Neil
American Gods

Gaiman, Neil
Neverwhere

Gibson, William
Burning Chrome

Gibson, William
Neuromancer

Grass, Günter
The Tin Drum

Greene, Graham
The End of the Affair

Grossman, Lev
The Magicians

Haldeman, Joe
The Forever War

Hall, Steven
The Raw Shark Texts

Harrison, M. John
The Centauri Device

Harrison, M. John
Light

Heinlein, Robert
The Moon is a Harsh Mistress

Heinlein, Robert:
Stranger in a Strange Land

Heinlein, Robert
Time Enough for Love

Helprin, Mark
Winter's Tale

Herbert, Frank
Dune

Hoffman, Alice
Practical Magic

Huxley, Aldous
Brave New World

Keret, Etgar
Suddenly, A Knock at the Door

Keyes, Daniel
Flowers for Algernon

Kundera, Milan
The Book of Laughter and Forgetting

Kunzru, Hari
Gods Without Men

Lafferty, R.A.
Nine Hundred Grandmothers

Le Guin, Ursula K.
The Dispossessed

Le Guin, Ursula K.
The Lathe of Heaven

Le Guin, Ursula K.
The Left Hand of Darkness

Leiber, Fritz
The Big Time

Leiber, Fritz
Conjure Wife

Leiber, Fritz
Swords & Deviltry

Leiber, Fritz
The Wanderer

Lem, Stanislaw
His Master's Voice

Lem, Stanislaw
Solaris

Lethem, Jonathan
The Fortress of Solitude

Lewis, C. S.
The Chronicles of Narnia

Link, Kelly
Magic for Beginners

Malzberg, Barry N.
Herovit's World

Mann, Thomas
Doctor Faustus

Márquez, Gabriel García
100 Years of Solitude

Markson, David
Wittgenstein's Mistress

Matheson, Richard
Hell House

Matheson, Richard
What Dreams May Come

McCarthy, Cormac
The Road

Miéville, China
Perdido Street Station

Miller, Jr., Walter M.
A Canticle for Leibowitz

Millhauser, Steven
Dangerous Laughter

Mitchell, David
Cloud Atlas

Moorcock, Michael
Behold the Man

Moorcock, Michael
The Final Programme

Morrison, Toni
Beloved

Murakami, Haruki
1Q84

Murakami, Haruki
Hard-Boiled Wonderland and the
End of the World

Nabokov, Vladimir
Ada, or Ardor

Niffenegger, Audrey
The Time Traveler's Wife

Niven, Larry
Ringworld

Noon, Jeff
Vurt

Obreht, Téa
The Tiger's Wife

O'Brien, Flann
At Swim-Two-Birds

Okri, Ben
The Famished Road

Percy, Walker
Love in the Ruins

Pohl, Frederik
Gateway

Pratchett, Terry
The Color of Magic

Pynchon, Thomas
Gravity's Rainbow

Rabelais, François
Gargantua and Pantagruel

Robinson, Kim Stanley
Red Mars

Rowling, J.K.
Harry Potter & the Sorcerer's Stone

Rushdie, Salman
Midnight's Children

Russ, Joanna
The Female Man

Saramago, José
Blindness

Sheckley, Robert
Dimension of Miracles

Sheckley, Robert
Mindswap

Sheckley, Robert
Store of the Worlds

Shelley, Mary
Frankenstein

Silverberg, Robert
Dying  Inside

Silverberg, Robert
Nightwings

Silverberg, Robert
The World Inside

Simak, Clifford
City

Simak, Clifford
The Trouble with Tycho

Smith, Cordwainer
Norstrilia

Smith, Cordwainer
The Rediscovery of Man

Stephenson, Neal
Snow Crash

Spinrad, Norman
Bug Jack Barron

Stross, Charles
Glasshouse

Sturgeon, Theodore
More Than Human

Sturgeon, Theodore
Some of Your Blood

Swift, Jonathan
Gulliver's Travels

Thomas, D.M.
The White Hotel

Tiptree, Jr., James
Warm Worlds and Otherwise

Tolkien, J.R.R.
The Hobbit

Updike, John
The Witches of Eastwick

Van Vogt, A.E.
The Mixed Men

Van Vogt, A.E.
Slan

Van Vogt, A.E.
The Voyage of the Space Beagle

Van Vogt, A.E.
The World of Null A

Vance, Jack
Emphyrio

Verne, Jules
Around the Moon

Verne, Jules
From the Earth to the Moon

Verne, Jules:
Journey to the Center of the Earth

Vonnegut, Kurt
Cat's Cradle

Vonnegut, Kurt
The Sirens of Titan

Vonnegut, Kurt
Slaughterhouse-Five

Wallace, David Foster
Infinite Jest

Walpole, Horace
Hieroglyphic Tales

Wells, H.G.
The First Men in the Moon

Wells, H.G.
The Island of Dr. Moreau

Wells, H.G.
The Time Machine

Wilson, Robert Anton & Robert Shea
The Illuminatus! Trilogy

Winton, Tim
Cloudstreet

Woolf, Virginia
Orlando

Zabor, Rafi
The Bear Comes Home

Zelazny, Roger
Lord of Light

Zelazny, Roger
This Immortal



Special Features
Notes on Conceptual Fiction
When Science Fiction Grew Up
Ray Bradbury: A Tribute
The Year of Magical Reading
Remembering Fritz Leiber
A Tribute to Richard Matheson
Samuel Delany's 70th birthday
The Sci-Fi of Kurt Vonnegut
Curse You, Neil Armstrong!
Robert Heinlein at 100
A.E, van Vogt Tribute
The Puzzling Case of Robert Sheckley
The Avant-Garde Sci-Fi of Brian Aldiss
Science Fiction 1958-1975: A Reading List

Links to related sites
The New Canon
Great Books Guide
Postmodern Mystery
Fractious Fiction
Ted Gioia's web site
Ted Gioia on Twitter


SF Site
io9
Graeme's Fantasy Book Review
Los Angeles Review of Books
The Millions
Big Dumb Object
SF Novelists
More Words, Deeper Hole
The Misread City
Reviews and Responses
SF Signal
True Science Fiction
Tor blog


Disclosure:  Conceptual Fiction
and its sister sites may receive review
copies and promotional materials from
publishers, authors,  publicists or other
parties.